For many of us, anxiety is a bad word—especially in work situations when we want to prove our best selves. We all have been exposed to its gripping hand at one point or another. Scientists tell us that it’s a disorder, which can reach within our souls and rob us of the chance to perform at our full potential. It’s linked to nervousness and irritability, to the inability to enjoy challenges or to fully reveal our skills and talents.

All the above, served with a side of an upset stomach, sweating, difficulty breathing, dizziness or sleeplessness, to name just few of the symptoms. It’s a sensation that can often makes us feel as if we have a thousand spiders crawling down our spine. That we will certainly fail and will have to live with the embarrassment for the rest of our lives. Simply put, performance jitters are not something that can be ignored, as they can cast a shadow on many of the opportunities to advance in our careers.

Having spent all my professional life in the financial industry as a client consultant, I’m no stranger to anxiety’s unfriendly reach. I’m constantly under pressure—to perform, to meet deadlines, to deliver the best possible solutions to clients, to make them and my managers happy, to be appreciated. More often than I can remember, I find myself hiding in the women’s washroom, taking deep breaths, trying to reign in my fears od failure and my nervousness. It helps a notch, but not always, as this is more of a temporary patch-up rather than sustainable solution.

However, contrary to common beliefs (as I have discovered in my desire to help myself), the feelings of worry that we won’t be able to accomplish our best, of not living up to expectations, and of the fear of failure, are not always detrimental.

A good way to think about our nervousness is more along the lines of a good old “frenemy.”

That is, research tells us, there are ways to use anxiety to our advantage, so that we can still get ahead in our professional (and personal) lives despite such adversities.

Here is how:

1. The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The law, developed in the early 20th century, is named after the famous psychologists who first found an empirical relationship between arousal and performance. We all have know, of course, that little amounts of uneasiness can actually be good for us. It can help us stay focused and more motivated, and get organized more efficiently. That is, an increase in arousal leads to a spike in performance.

But only up to a point. After a certain level, performance starts to plateau and even decline. Simply put, as the above research has unearthed, the link between the two is an inverted U-shape.

Different tasks at work bear different levels of excitement when trying to reach the utmost we can achieve in terms of performance. And to make things a bit more tangled, we all also have varying peak points and tolerances. After a certain level, though, all performance anxiety becomes toxic. Instead of driving us forward, it starts to feel like a stone around our necks—it pulls us down until we feel as we are drowning in our uncertainties and fears.

So, to advance at our careers, scientists advise us, we simply need to learn to recognize when we have reached our peak point but try to not tip over the edge. That is, we need to reign in the butterflies in our stomach if we get a bit too agitated.

2. Performance Anxiety as Excitement

In certain situations, when we feel nervousness sweeping over us (for instance, when we have to speak in front of co-workers, or when we want to make a good first impression with a new client), instead of trying to calm down and breathe slowly (as traditionally recommended), we have to simply let ourselves live in the feeling. We should not try to remove the emotion, just re-appraise our anxiety as excitement, according to Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

Rather than just being nervous and scared, saying “I’m excited” every time when we are tense, can instantly make us feel better and improve our performance and experience, especially in those situations involving social events and public-speaking. The goal is to take negative emotions, such as the dread of being a mediocre performer and of failure, and view them in a positive way, i.e. as positive arousals, as something thrilling, not frightful.

Various studies have further shown that by re-phrasing such uneasiness, we can improve our self-esteem, well-being, and will be viewed by others as more competent and persuasive when we talk. All of which are, of course, pre-requisites for the recognition we crave at work or that promotion we have been secretly eyeing for a long time.

Trying to suppress our nervousness by hiding it or by attempting to “calm down” will not have the expected positive impact, research confirms. In other words, cooling down too much may not be the cool thing to do if we want to give a stellar performance.

3. Positive Anxiety

Back in the 70s, the endocrinologist called Hans Selye developed the general adaptation syndrome, or simply—the theory of stress, where he labeled certain feel-good emotions as “eustress.” He also wanted to examine how they differ from the condition of distress. The word “eustress” comes from Greek—the prefix “eu-” means “well” or “good.” In other words, it’s a “good stress.”

Eustress is our friend, Dr. Selye asserted, it’s linked to positive emotions and happiness, while distress is our enemy—it leads to all the negative symptoms we described earlier.

Of course, the million-dollar questions here are: How do we distinguish one from the other, and how can we avoid distress? The answers are somewhat surprising. It’s believed that our bodies can’t physically tell eustress from distress, and the same “trigger” can throw us in either side of the spectrum of emotions. What it comes down to is simply our perceptions of the particular event.

For instance, if we approach being given more work as a challenge or a step toward better things to come, we will experience positive emotions or eustress. But if we see tasks as burdens and constantly fret about unfavorable outcomes, we will be, naturally, miserable and dissatisfied.

Engaging in activities that make us happy, such as taking a walk during our lunch hour, or a small chat with a co-worker, can help alleviate the nervousness from things as having too much on our plate, from dreading that management presentation, or from wanting to nail the job interview.

And if tension piles up anyway, then we should learn how to cope with the stressors. The more we feel in control, or at least perceive that we do, the easier it will be to transform distress into eustress.

Other research into these sensations has come to a familiar conclusion: it’s all within our power to change how we feel. By shifting our perceptions, or by re-assessing our views of our experiences – for instance, seeing public speaking as a great way to shine – we can make all the difference in the world for ourselves. 

So, a positive mindset and an optimistic outlook (no matter how trite these phrases may sound) have been shown to elicit “favorable performance anxiety” responses. And what’s more—psychologists now believe that although we may be genetically predisposed to anxiety, we can change our personalities—including our mindsets, beliefs and attitudes. All it takes is a little thing called motivation.

Is it really worth the effort, one may ask? Well, let’s see—distress has been linked depression and lack of energy, among the few side effects. Eustress, on the other hand, can make us happier, more confident and fulfilled. And did we also mention—more efficient and successful at work?

That is, the small exercise in re-defining our perceptions of life events can actually make us live longer, get healthier, and improve the quality of our experiences.

Because, after all, isn’t life all about this—finding  ways to cultivate our best possible selves, so that we can make our existence on earth worthwhile and full of colour?